Music and art therapies offer cognitive, social, physical and emotional benefits to seniors.
One fall afternoon, J.R. Comita, Spectrum Retirement Communities’ vice president of life enrichment, was trying out a new program when one memory care resident took him by surprise.
“Loretta” had advanced dementia and limited mobility — until she heard Neil Diamond’s hit song “America.”
When she heard Diamond sing “They’re coming to America,” Loretta beamed. She rose from her chair and swayed to the beat of the song. She was having a blast.
We often forget names or appointments, but we can sing every word of our favorite songs. Our neighbor might be confined to a wheelchair, but he taps his feet to a familiar tune. A woman with Alzheimer’s disease may agitate easily, but she finds peace and a sense of humor when she holds a paintbrush.
Making an Impact
Numerous studies point to music’s significant cognitive, social, physical and emotional benefits. Art therapy, while studied less extensively than music, has been shown to ease depression and anxiety, improve cognitive functions and reduce pain.
Art and music have an especially profound impact on memory-impaired adults. “Somebody who has dementia has significant changes in the brain,” says Sarah Spiece, a board-certified music therapist and a graduate teaching assistant for Colorado State University’s Music Therapy program. “Neurologically, music activates more of the brain than any single function. That could possibly tie into the reason why someone with memory impairment can still recognize a song, whether they hum the tune or sing all the words.”
Studies show that the songs we knew between the ages of 13 and 25 have the greatest potential to stir memories. According to an article in New York magazine about brain activity during adolescence, we experience things more intensely during this time. Any cultural stimuli we’re exposed to during our teen years makes a deeper impression. Listening to songs from our youth triggers these potent memories and may give us a mood boost. They’re certainly fun to sing along to as well!
Even classical music, which predates all of us, helps the brain. A University of California, Irvine, study showed that scores on memory tests of Alzheimer’s disease patients improved when they listened to classical music.
Playing music not only brings creative fulfillment, but also benefits the mind. A study published in The Hearing Journal showed that adults ages 60 to 85 with no previous music experience improved processing speed and memory after three months of weekly piano lessons and three hours of practice each week. “With older adults, learning how to play an instrument can assist in maintaining cognitive function because they’re learning something new,” says Spiece.
Music therapy also helps maintain and slow the deterioration of speech and language skills. Rhythm-based exercises paired with words can help stroke patients or adults with Parkinson’s disease speak more intelligibly.
Because it inspires dancing, toe-tapping and clapping, music has physical benefits as well. “It can decrease atrophy in muscles that are used for the instrument a person is learning,” says Spiece. Music, art and even crafts classes help improve motor skills and provide sensory stimulation.
Improving Health and Well-being
Music and art programs also keep you out of the doctor’s office. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), in cooperation with George Washington University, conducted a multistate study to measure the impact of “professionally conducted, community-based cultural programs” on the general health, mental health and social activities of adults age 65 and over.
The group who participated in arts programs reported better health, even two years after the study. Those participating in arts programs reported fewer doctor visits and less medication use than the control group.
Art and music therapies help reduce stress, inspire creativity and boost social interaction. Engaging in creative activities with others helps reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. During group activities, classmates bond by listening to or performing music together or by admiring one another’s artistic works.
According to the NEA study, participation in arts programs had a positive effect on morale. Those adults scored better on a depression assessment.
With all the benefits associated with music and art therapies, there’s no reason to shy away from Spectrum Retirement’s visual and performing arts programs, group sing-alongs and music therapy programs. Don’t worry if you’ve never picked up an instrument or a paintbrush.
When clients hesitate, Spiece encourages them to give it a try despite their trepidation. “You’ll be surrounded by people feeling the same way,” she says. “Whoever leads the group is there to help you be successful.”
“Music is good for the soul,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what you sound like as long as you’re having fun.”
By Heather R. Johnson